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Normally when we cite books it's done by a member that has had access to the book and read the relevant portions. Now one question has a graph with statistics lifted from a book which is being displayed in the answer, and a comment brings up weather or not we can assume the graph is true.

"Income Ranking by Religious Group - 2000" by Rcragun

This particular issue is with regards to Religion in a Free Market that is on Google books. There's no page number referenced I'd imagine you would need to at minimum skim the whole book until you hit a relevant section which seems impossible with the page omissions. The book is written by two professors in relevant fields although I do not know what the quality of their work is.

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Wikipedia is great for uncontroversial, high-school stuff. The idea there is that it's generally a good, correct introduction to many subjects, so it acts a bit like a "dictionary" for us. In these cases, Wikipedia can be linked to, because its contents can be confirmed and refuted with a trivial Google search or by pulling out one's old high school textbooks. The choice of linking to Wikipedia is motivated by its clarity, not by its reliability.

On the other hand, linking to wikipedia for any claim can lead you to very strange places, and many of these overlap the typical questions we get on the site. So, it's not OK to use Wikipedia for anything which a lot of people believe, but it's incorrect. Clearly Wikipedia risks a confirmation bias there.

In other words:

  • OK to link to wikipedia when it's a well explained article on and there are very many other sources repeating the same content, making the point being sustained uncontroversial ("high school level").

  • NO to link to wikipedia when the point being made is non-trivial, e.g. when wikipedia is not properly referenced, or it's not a school level subject, or when the resources linked by wikipedia are weak.

This particular graph is probably correct, but clearly it's not enough. I wouldn't use it as evidence. Surely there's a paper upon which this (and the book) are based, and if not, then probably the data isn't very reliable...

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  • Is your main issue with the fact that the identicality of the data in the graph and original data in the research isn't proven? (e.g. anyone can edit Wiki image to NOT correspond to the book's data)? If so, does adding "I read the original research and the figures correspond to the graph" sufficient without reproducing actual tables from the book? – user5341 Apr 9 '15 at 17:31
  • @DVK Well, the book is likely a secondary source which points to an article. Having the article is much better because we can see the methodology and a lot of other bits of information which are absent. This, specifically. My answer was more about why Wikipedia wouldn't work in general. – Sklivvz Apr 9 '15 at 19:50
  • that's descriptive, not prescriptive (e.g. what should be changed in such an answer to make it more acceptable). I was hoping for the latter, if possible. – user5341 Apr 9 '15 at 20:19
  • @DVK if the sources are unreliable, better sources need to be found. If they don't exist then probably the answer is unfixable. – Sklivvz Apr 9 '15 at 20:24
  • I may have misunderstood the question? The way I read it was: Source X has data (of a given reliability that isn't disputed - BUT the poster has no access to the source to confirm the data). Wikipedia made up a chart that claims to be based on that data, with no proof of the fact that the chart matches the data. Am I misunderstanding the issue? – user5341 Apr 9 '15 at 20:36
  • I'm basing this especially on "and a comment brings up weather or not we can assume the graph is true" sentence and the complaint about lack of page #s in Wiki cite – user5341 Apr 9 '15 at 20:38
  • @DVK I don't understand: unaccessible sources can never be reliable. I've avoided many times in the past using any source I couldn't verify. – Sklivvz Apr 9 '15 at 20:54
  • there are two distinct possible issues: "I don't trust the #s in the book" vs "I don't trust the image because I can't prove that it matches the #s in the book - but I trust the latter". Unless I'm mistaken, the question discussed the second issue and NOT the first. IMHO, the degree of reliableness is vastly different (e.g., I can just as easily assume that a direct quote from a paper book on Wikipedia is wrong, as that the image generated from data in poorly-scanned book is false. Yet, we seem to be OK with the quotes that are cited but can't be proven) – user5341 Apr 9 '15 at 20:59
  • In the second case, one can check the book, and settle the matter. I would not trust wikipedia's statement without checking (even if they claim to be cited). I am not quite sure who would be OK with this level of evidence. – Sklivvz Apr 9 '15 at 21:09
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TL;DR:

  1. Issue #1: The fact that it's a graph.

    This is 100% irrelevant to deciding reliability.

    A graph (whether copied in graphics form from a book, or generated based on tabular data in a book) is 100% as reliable or unreliable as quoting the book itself - you can verify either form of citation the same exact way. A graph is merely a slightly different way to cosmetically present tabular data.

  2. Issue #2: The fact that that the citation lacks page #s

    • Yes, it's reliable enough to be used to support an answer.

      Or, at least as reliable as any other citation of a book with no pages provided but with the direct quotation included (I count #s in the graph as a "direct quotation" - while they can be of course deliberately misquoted incorrectly, they are unlikely to be "taken out of context" or "paraphrased incorrectly")

    • No, it does not possess the same exact degree of reliability that a cite with page #s would. Therefore it should probably NOT be used to support ironclad-certainty-implying conclusions.

    • A minor but important consideration: specifically on the highly controversial topics with tons of Wiki attention, the lack of page #s may be a negative signal, meaning that nobody yet bothered to independently verify the citation - otherwise, the verifier would have plausibly edited in the page #s after finding the data.


More detailed discussion on the lack of page #s

Frankly, I would treat it 100% the same as any other similar level of evidence.

  • Is that evidence?

    Yes.

    It may not be the best evidence, but it's evidence. On this site we support far flimsier evidence types (including hearsay, and self-describing statements from subjects of inquiry).


  • Is it reliable enough to constitute enough evidence to support incontrovertible proof by the standards of this site?

    Not necessarily (this is somewhat subjective, but I lean towards no)

    Why? Because

    1. as you noted - without a page # (or an electronic version of a book freely accessible and searcheable) you'd have to get access to a book and skim/read 100% of it to verify that the person editing the info in Wikipedia didn't either make up, or deliberately or accidentally inaccurately reproduce the information.

      To play devil's advocate to my own point, I must point out that for many books, getting your hands on the book is actually the harder and more involved part of verifying the information, compared to a mere trifle of skimming through the book once you got it.

    2. Moreover, there's a somewhat weak but not invalid consideration that someone who didn't even bother adding a page # probably wouldn't have bothered to do a good job of verifying their citation in the first place. Not a certainty, but an indicator of possible sloppy attitude.

    3. Somewhat related to #1/2, if someone posts a citation on the Wiki with page #s, one can hope that someone else verified this citation (since it's easy if you have source material) and based on lack of objections, confirmed it. Whereas if the citation is harder to verify (need to skim the whole book), it's not as likely to have been verified at all.

      As a matter of fact, one may even assume that the lack of page #s is a plausible indication that the citation was never verified - since anyone who DID put in the effort to skim the book to verify it would have likely edited in the page #!


  • Can it be used to support an answer?

    Yes, in a sense of as much as any other cited information on Wikipedia, just with a lesser degree of certainty/reliability.

    Why? Because while it may be harder to verify, it IS verifiable. Merely would take longer time/effort to verify. Therefore, while the chances that it's inaccurate are slightly higher than any other information on Wikipedia, they merely are minor degrees of certainty - someone can just as easily inaccurately cite a source with a page #, it will merely be slightly harder for you to check that (and not all that hard if electronic copy of the book is obtainable - even scanned PDFs can be OCRed and searched efficiently).

    As a side note, I asked a dedicated Meta question on that very specific topic (can we use a book cite with missing pages) and the emerging early consensus seems to be that yes, we can - though most people aren't very chipper about such cites, for reasons that are elaborated above.

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    One more thing: books are not primary sources, and the kind of books which we "like" contain citations, typically to papers or other books. Being able to access the list of citations is of fundamental importance, and often allows us to "skip" the book entirely and point to the source. – Sklivvz Apr 15 '15 at 9:16
  • @Sklivvz - Oh, OK, fair point - I missed that in your answer somehow. I suppose the unstated reason is peer review that the paper underwent? – user5341 Apr 16 '15 at 17:38
  • Yes, but also that typically articles contain enough information to determine their credibility (sample size, methodology, etc ) – Sklivvz Apr 16 '15 at 17:56

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